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Miller's Crossing

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Miller's Crossing

Miller's Crossing
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Produced by Ethan Coen
Joel Coen (uncredited)
Written by Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Starring Gabriel Byrne
Marcia Gay Harden
John Turturro
Jon Polito
J. E. Freeman
Albert Finney
Music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography Barry Sonnenfeld
Edited by Michael R. Miller
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • 21 September 1990 (1990-09-21)
Running time 115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $14 million
Box office $5,080,409 (North America)

Miller's Crossing is a 1990 American gangster film by the Coen brothers and starring Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J. E. Freeman, and Albert Finney. The plot concerns a power struggle between two rival gangs and how the protagonist, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), plays both sides off each other.

In 2005, Time chose Miller's Crossing as one of the 100 greatest films made since the inception of the periodical. Time critic Richard Corliss called it a "noir with a touch so light, the film seems to float on the breeze like the Frisbee of a fedora sailing through the forest."


Tom Reagan is the long-time consigliere of Leo O'Bannon, an Irish American mob boss who runs a city during Prohibition. When Leo's up-and-coming Italian rival Johnny Caspar announces his intent to kill bookie Bernie Bernbaum, Leo goes against Tom's advice and extends his protection to Bernie. Bernie is the brother of Verna Bernbaum, an opportunistic gun moll who has begun a relationship with Leo while carrying on a secret affair with Tom. Leo and Caspar go to war as a consequence.

Tom tries everything he can to convince Leo to give Bernie up to Caspar to end the war; he attempts to convince Leo that Verna is playing him to protect her brother, but Leo will not be swayed. After an assassination attempt on Leo, Tom reveals his affair with Verna to Leo to prove that she is dishonest, causing Leo to beat Tom and turn his back on both.

Tom appears to change sides and goes to work for the ascendant Caspar. He is immediately commanded to kill Bernie in the woods at Miller's Crossing to prove his loyalty. Bernie pleads with Tom to spare him, saying "Look into your heart." Perhaps out of love for Verna, Tom fires his gun to fake the killing and tells Bernie to run and hide.

The war goes well for Caspar and he assumes Leo's position as boss of the city, controlling the Police and using them to destroy Leo's operations. However, Tom begins sowing discord between Caspar and his trusted enforcer, Eddie Dane. Upon finding that his men didn't actually see Tom kill Bernie, Dane takes Tom back to Miller's Crossing to see if Bernie's body is there. Tom nearly cracks as they approach the location, but they find a body with its face shot in. Unknown to Tom, Bernie has returned, and killed Dane's homosexual lover Mink, placing the body where his should have been. Bernie holds this over Tom's head and tries to blackmail Tom into killing Caspar.

Tom uses Mink's unknown whereabouts to convince Caspar that Eddie Dane has betrayed him. Dane denies it, and Caspar has to decide who he believes, and who he will kill. In a rage, he beats Eddie Dane before shooting him in the head. Tom then arranges a meeting with Bernie, but sends Caspar instead. Bernie gets the jump on Caspar and kills him. Tom arrives and tricks Bernie into giving up his gun, saying they can blame Eddie Dane, then reveals that Dane is dead, and that he intends to kill Bernie in retribution for blackmailing Tom. Bernie again begs for mercy, saying "Look into your heart", but Tom asks "What heart?" and shoots him.

With Caspar and Eddie Dane dead, Leo resumes his post as top boss. Verna has won her way back into Leo's good graces, and she reacts coldly to Tom. On the day Bernie is buried, Leo announces that Verna has proposed to him, and offers Tom his job back. Tom refuses, and remains behind, watching as Leo departs.



While writing the screenplay, the Coen brothers tentatively titled the film The Bighead—their nickname for Tom Reagan. The first image they conceived was that of a black hat coming to rest in a forest clearing; then, a gust of wind lifts it into the air, sending it flying down an avenue of trees. This image begins the film's opening credit sequence.

Because of the intricate, dense plot, the Coens suffered from writer's block with the script. They stayed with a close friend of theirs at the time, William Preston Robertson in St. Paul, Minnesota, hoping that a change of scenery might help. After watching Baby Boom one night, they returned to New York City and wrote Barton Fink (in three weeks) before resuming the Miller's Crossing screenplay.

The budget was reported by film industry magazines as $14 million, but the Coens claimed in interviews that it was only $10 million. During the casting process, they had envisioned Trey Wilson (who played Nathan Arizona in their previous film Raising Arizona) as gangster boss Leo O'Bannon, but two days before the first day of principal photography Wilson died from a brain haemorrhage. Finney was subsequently cast.

The Coens cast family and friends in minor roles. Finney also appears in a brief cameo as an elderly female ladies' room attendant. Sam Raimi, director and friend of the Coens, appears as the snickering gunman at the siege of the Sons of Erin social club, while Frances McDormand, Joel Coen's wife, appears as the Mayor's secretary. The role of The Swede was written for Peter Stormare, but he could not be cast since he was playing Hamlet at the time. J. E. Freeman was cast and the name of the character was changed to The Dane, while Stormare went on to be featured in Fargo and The Big Lebowski.

The city in which the story takes place is unidentified, but the film was shot in New Orleans as the Coen Brothers were attracted to its look. Ethan Coen commented in an interview, "There are whole neighborhoods here of nothing but 1929 architecture. New Orleans is sort of a depressed city; it hasn't been gentrified. There's a lot of architecture that hasn't been touched, store-front windows that haven't been replaced in the last sixty years."[1]

During filming, the New Orleans police would arrive semi-regularly to assess fines for permits that the film crew had already procured. Joel Coen commented to Premiere during shooting, "They are acting precisely like the cops that we're depicting in the movie, and they don't even care!"


Miller's Crossing contains references to many gangster films and film noir. Many situations, characters and dialogue are derived from the work of Dashiell Hammett, particularly his 1931 novel The Glass Key (as well as the 1942 film that was adapted from it). Though several important plot points are different, there are significant parallels between the two stories, and many scenes and lines are culled directly from this novel. In particular, the relationship between Tom and Leo in the film mirrors the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig, the principal characters of the Hammett novel.[2][3][4]

Another important Hammett source was his 1929 novel Red Harvest, which details the story of a gang war in a corrupt Prohibition-era American city, a war initiated by the machinations of the main character. While Miller's Crossing follows the plot and main characters of The Glass Key fairly closely, the film has no direct scenes, characters, or dialogue from Red Harvest.[2][3]

Two earlier films that were also influenced by the aforementioned Hammett novels are Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and motifs from both are seen in Miller's Crossing.[5][6][7]

The film Ocean's Twelve features two references from Miller's Crossing. The film references the "Look into your heart" scene with John Turturro in the dialogue between Rusty (Brad Pitt) and Reuben (Elliott Gould) as well as the actor Albert Finney making an uncredited cameo in the film.


Miller's Crossing was a box-office failure at the time, making slightly more than $5 million, out of its $10–$14 million budget.[8] However, it has earned a great deal of revenue in video and DVD sales. The film was critically acclaimed, with a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 66 on Metacritic.[9]

Film critic David Thomson calls the film "a superb, languid fantasia on the theme of the gangster film that repays endless viewing."[10] Of Turturro's performance he says "This could be the finest work of one of our best supporting actors". Roger Ebert gave it 3/4 stars, stating "It is likely to be most appreciated by movie lovers who will enjoy its resonance with films of the past."[11]

Miller's Crossing won the Critic's Award at the 2nd Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in February 1991.[12] It was nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.


Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Miller's Crossing
Soundtrack album by Carter Burwell
Released 17 October 1990
Genre Film score
Length 28:03
Label Varèse Sarabande
Coen brothers film soundtracks chronology
Raising Arizona
Miller's Crossing
Barton Fink
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 4/5 stars[13]

The score was written by Carter Burwell, his third collaboration with the Coen brothers.

The soundtrack includes jazz tunes, such as "King Porter Stomp," reflective of the era in which the film is set. Other songs include "Danny Boy," sung by Frank Patterson, an Irish tenor, which is heard in Leo's house. Patterson can also be heard singing Jimmy Campbell's "Goodnight Sweetheart" in a scene in the Shenandoah Club.

Track listing

  1. "Opening Titles" – 1:53
  2. "Caspar Laid Out" – 1:57
  3. "A Man and His Hat" – 0:56
  4. "King Porter Stomp" (performed by Jelly Roll Morton) – 2:09
  5. "The Long Way Around" – 1:39
  6. "Miller's Crossing" – 2:35
  7. "After Miller's Crossing" – 0:42
  8. "Runnin' Wild" (performed by Joe Grey) – 3:06
  9. "Rage of the Dane" – 0:05
  10. "All a You Whores" – 0:24
  11. "Nightmare in the Trophy Room" – 1:37
  12. "He Didn't Like His Friends" – 0:24
  13. "Danny Boy" (performed by Frank Patterson) – 4:05
  14. "What Heart?" – 0:49
  15. "End Titles" – 4:44
  16. "Goodnight Sweetheart" (performed by Frank Patterson) – 0:54


  1. ^ Levy, Steven (2000). ""Shot By Shot," Joel and Ethan Coen: Blood Siblings". Plexus. p. 75. 
  2. ^ a b Moraes, Francis. (17 March 2010). Miller's Crossing.
  3. ^ a b Coughlin, Paul. "Senses of Cinema – Miller's Crossing, The Glass Key and Dashiell Hammett". Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  4. ^ "Millerscrossing". Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  5. ^ Dahl, Steve. (31 August 2011). Miller's Crossing, Blu-ray review, Coen Brothers.
  6. ^ British Film Institute. "Yojimbo | British Film Institute". Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  7. ^ Hal C F Astell (8 April 2010). "Apocalypse Later: Miller's Crossing (1990)". Retrieved 20 October 2013. 
  8. ^ "Miller's Crossing box office". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 16 June 2008. 
  9. ^ Miller's Crossing at Metacritic
  10. ^ Thomson, David (2008), "Have You Seen...?", New York City: Knopf, p. 554.
  11. ^ "Miller's Crossing". 
  13. ^ soundtrack albumMiller's Crossing at AllMusic

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